“I don’t believe in collective guilt, but I do believe in collective responsibility.” – Audrey Hepburn
The second story in the November series.
Special thanks to my friend doing me a huge service in helping edit the following work.
The world was broken. Not metaphorically broken. Not broken in the sense of a philosopher’s observation. It was broken. Pieces of it rained outwards into the void of the universe like a hail storm of life and civilization. Every now and then, amongst the storm, Dipa would spot domestic debris.
Mechanical parts that might have once been someone’s car. A large scrap of a possible mansion. She’d even spotted a whole half of a cruise liner. Yet all among the ashen ruins of a rock that once had been home. Beside her, Dipa’s co-operator sat with heaving shoulders. Tearful sobs reduced to nothing more than the dry wheeze of a soul overwhelmed. Deo was still working the controls, making each delicate maneuver while attempting to keep teary eyes open.
Their ship had launched days before the impact. They had watched Asteroid Aditi-0, the gargantuan rock that made Earth look like a marble, slam into their home. Dipa finally felt her heart wrench. She had no idea who had gotten onto the evacuation ships. If her sisters had managed to get aboard one. Or if her parents had gotten over their stubbornness and left home – or if they had stayed.
Her throat felt tight, chest trembling with the sheer effort to stay her breathing.
“Deo”, she tried again, “Hey!”
“What?? What… what is it?”
“Call… call command. It’s been long enough. They should have secured their fly pattern. We need to know what to do…”
His voice was shaking with every word. Sucking in each breath like he was drowning, Dipa wanted him to be quiet. Yet she was all too aware of her pitched voice, thrown sharp by her clenched throat.
Deo fumbled, clumsy gestures replacing years of careful aeronautics training. A few switches later and the call signal was transmitting. The unneeded sound effect of a ringing phone playing did nothing but make Dipa’s heart ache for her home. Beside her in the small room the made up the bridge, Deo wiped their eyes – taking leveling breaths. Breathing in when the rings echoed and out when they stopped.
“Maybe they’re… briefing? The citizens? You know? Explaining how the Europa Colony will work?”
“Yeah. I’m sure everyone is getting asked a hundred questions… Shanta is probably going mad…”
“Should we try again later? I mean they’ll be there later right?”
Dipa nodded slowly, undoing her security belts, “Right… we should. Check the animals. Do you wanna come?”
Not once did her companion’s eyes look towards her. Deo shut the call off and shook his head. Wiping one umber hand over trails of dried tears.
“No… go ahead. I’ll stay here in case we get a call back. If we don’t hear anything I’ll start heading us toward Europa… the debris could just be blocking the signals.”
“Right. I’ll start with the avians… pick up where we left off yesterday.”
“Hangar B-8 right?”
“Right… don’t hesitate to use the ship overlay if you need me D.”
For a moment Deo and Dipa shared a short, trembling smile. Her vision blurred for a moment before she forced herself to blink the tears away. Dipa nodded at Deo, as he turned away from her, facing the chaos outside the ship once again. Her mouth hung open, lips no shape coming to the quiet sigh that fell from her lips. Instead, she turned away, pushing the handle and swinging the heavy bulkhead open.
The ship creaked, metal aching against the storms outside. Hailing rocks that were too small for Deo to steer away from causing small echoes that beat like a drum. An unsteady beat that rocked and cracked against Dipa’s mind. One loud thrum and then silence, followed by successive beats like a rat-tat-tat-tat. The uncertainty of the beat was equal parts calming and nerve wracking.
It was a simple path to walk to the enclosures. Her ship, the GSLV-Kota, had been built to be a cargo vessel for the Indian science station on Europa. Last minute, though, the crates were tossed and refilled with enclosures. The purpose being to preserve the wildlife of India. It was a two person crew, to take care of the animals they had been charged with. Dipa knew of at least two other cargo ships that had a similar purpose, but not of their whereabouts.
Wringing her hands she walked the halls, pulling her long thick braid in front of her. Curls popping out of the woven strands, nervous hands only serving to pull more of the pieces loose. The corridor was a long straight, passage, lined with large bulkheads that lead into the containment rooms. At the very end of the corridor was the crew chambers, abandoned save for herself and Deo.
At the beginning of the journey, the two of them would race from the bridge to the crew quarters to fill the time. Now Dipa didn’t even feel like making the solemn trudge to the Avian Room. The eighth hangar from the bridge was the avians enclosure. Labeled by a drab sign that hung over the old one, “Hangar 8-B” was now “Avians”. Dipa snatched the datapad off the wall hanger before sliding into the room. Upon entering, Dipa became overwhelmed by a myriad of caws and cries. The drag, gray interior of the ship had become a dreamland with all the colors of the enclosures.
Greens, reds, and blues filled her blurring vision, as the scent of life overwhelmed her. A few nearby birds fluttered forward in their enclosures squawking for food. Her cheeks ached with the effort to smile at the little Red Avadavats that were expecting treats. She worked her way through the crowded room, weaving through the stacked enclosures towards the back.
It was a hasty effort, to re-purpose the ship’s cargo, much of the plants doubling as habitat and food for the animals. Dipa sighed, thinking of the ship’s normal crew, wondering if they’d been evacuated. Only she and Deo were on board so that more space could be used for animals.
Looking at the birds, the image of the men who had saluted her and Deo as they boarded the Kota flashed in her memory. A solitary thought crossed her mind:
How many birds are worth one human life?
From there she began her checklist from where she’d left off.
“Two, Austen’s Brown Hornbills. Fed, watered and in good health. Check. Six Kashmir Flycatchers. Fed, watered, and in good health – no treats right no. Check. Two Sociable Lapwings, yawning as usual. Check. Two White Bellied Blue Robins – wait.”
Dipa paused her scan of the room as she passed by the enclosure. Small in size, nowhere near big enough for these birds, she could only spot one of the bright blue birds through the sparse greenery. She stepped forward with haste, eyes darting around for its partner. After a moment, she spotted it on the cage floor. Blue. Still. And quite dead.
“…Report, one of two White Bellied Blue Robins, death en-route to Europa facilities.” she looked up to the other bird that, “Sorry you’re going to have to live alone buddy. I… hope you guys laid eggs first.”
She tore her eyes away and continued the list. Some had many, but most birds were in cages of two. Two birds to species that were now all considered critically endangered. As she checked her list, Dipa wondered if humanity would now be critically endangered as well.
Three Weeks Later
“Nothing yet?”, Dipa asked as she entered the bridge, to tin cups of watery coffee burning in his hands as he entered. Deo looked up to her, taking the offered coffee as he did.
The call cut off.
“Nothing yet. And we’re still a few days out from Europa, we won’t know anything until we get there.”
“I would have thought we would have gotten out of the worst of the debris field by now… or that it would have, I don’t know spread out a bit more?”
“No clue, we’ll just have to wait and see.”
He nodded, sliding into the main seat aside Deo. Slurping some of the coffee down while trying to not choke on the grounds. She ran a sienna hand over her face, leaning back into the metal wicker of his seat.
“Are all the species accounted for now?”, Deo asked after a few moments of loud slurping.
“Except for the random deaths, yeah, we’ve got everybody here and ready for release on Europa. What do they even have set up there? I know they have a few bases there and some civilian centers but what are we gonna do drop these guys off on a zoo?”
“I? I don’t know, maybe we’ll just re-purpose something, all our job is to get the animals there and then the specialists take over. And we, find our families I guess.”
Dipa nodded. Thinking once again of her family. The parents that had refused to move from their generational home no matter what. Even when they grew old, even when the children had left – even when the sky threatened to come crashing down. She shook off a violent wave of nausea at the thought. She shrugged at Deo, shaking the thoughts away and taking a long slurp of coffee.
“Time will tell I guess D’. We’ll figure it out, somehow”, he whispered after a moment. Deo’s eye looked to space, watching the scattered debris floating by.
“I just. Want to know where my family is…”
“We’ll get contact soon and then we can have one of the bigwigs search the passengers until we find them. Don’t worry I’m sure they got on, we got upgraded to important people when this shit happened, I’m sure they would have been given supreme priority when getting on board ships.”
Dipa glanced at him sideways shocked at his sudden bitter tone. Deo finally faced her, tired circles under his eyes from nights spent tending to animals. At the same time, she finally noticed that he hadn’t touched his coffee – letting the hot tin cool in his clasped hands.
“You okay D?”
“It just doesn’t feel right… I mean how many more people could we have fit on this ship… how many people in total could we have gotten on here if it weren’t for the animals.”
“D’… I mean uh”, she floundered, finally reaching to the echoing statement officials gave her, “the animals are an important part of our culture -“
“There is no culture now D’! India is gone! Half our people are gone and we stacked our ship full of fucking tweety birds instead of the countless people who didn’t get PRIORITY onto ships.”
Dipa stared at him, mouth floundering to find the right words to say next. Hastily she moved to set her cup down. It teetered for a moment on the control board but after a few harrowing seconds, it steadied. Deo had covered his face with one dark toned hand, the other limply holding the cup in his lap.
“How many people got left behind Dipa?”, it was the crack in his voice, the strong timber crashing like a tall tree cut down, that caused her to move to him.
Eyes blearily looking up at him she took the cup from his hands and moved it aside, setting it on the floor out of the way. Her own hands reached for his and pulled them close, forcing Deo to look down at her kneeling posture on the ground.
“Don’t think about it. Don’t think about how many people didn’t make it – think about what we saved! Deo, we, we’ve saved part of Earth, part of India and – and as long as we keep these animals alive so is the Earth -“
“Don’t feed me that bullshit, what was the purpose!? There’s not going to be zoo’s anymore, and half these animals are going to be extinct in a year’s time! All we did was take away space for humans to get away on! Dipa, Dipa we, we killed people!”
She tugged at his arms, nearly dragging him to the floor with her, “Don’t say that! We did what we could! We did something!”
“Hundreds! We could have saved hundreds!”
“We saved SOMETHING!”
Both their voices had devolved into angry shouts. Breathing raggedly with the force of the yelling. Dipa was shamefully aware of the wetness on her own faced and would have – in any other situation – left to clean herself up. But with Deo’s equal, if not more severe crying, she felt no desire to do anything but stay by him.
“What about your parents Dipa?! Did they get priority! Did they get saved! Or was their life less important than two birds that just shit and eat! How about my twin sister? Is one twin equal to three frogs, or two turtles?! Just admit it we let people burn we let them die!”
“Don’t you talk about my family! Don’t you dare!! THEY WOULD HAVE BEEN PROUD! THEY WILL BE! When I – When I find them! And your sister! She’ll think we were heroes for preserving this part of Earth!”
With a no doubt painful tug, Dipa dragged Deo to the floor with her, knocking them both askew. A clatter of tin on steel and a sudden wetness on her back informed her of a spilled cup. She paid little mind as Deo forced himself uprights still clasped like mouse traps.
“And what if we don’t?? What if we don’t – don’t find them D? What do we do? Who do we- who do we have? It’s all…”
His mouth hung open, the word unspoken but it was to clear what his meaning was. Dipa could feel the pure bodily shake through his hand. She tightly reaffirmed the grasp and sat up taller beside him. Vision blurred from the tears and voice now hoarse from the emotion it had struggled with.
“We have us, you have me D and I have you – it’s not gone. Not, not yet.”
Deo’s voice cracked again, a wrenching sob falling from his lips as an aborted sentence failed to take shape. His head fell into hers, their foreheads meeting together.
“We have – ha- “, her own voice failed. Falling in time with Deo’s sobs. And together, for the first time since the impact, they lamented what had been lost. Woven hands became woven limbs and the two sat collapsed on the coffee-stained floor, crying together as their destroyed home drifted by.
Dipa lost track of how long they sat like that. Long enough for her shirt to dry and for their heaving lungs to quiet at the least. Finally, she pulled back away from Deo, grasping his head and forcing his tear tracked face to look at her, “It’s not all gone. We have us. Us two.”
Two Weeks Later
“Th – … Thr… THREE!”
Dipa broke off into a full sprint. Deo beside her as they raced from the bridge end of the corridor towards the crew quarters. It was 11 A.M. and they had been racing for about two hours, short breaks taken now and again to argue about who had cheated or not, but nothing more or less.
They sped past the amphibians. Deo in the lead just barely. His calloused, working hands pushing at Dipa playfully.
His lead became a solid draw as they ran forwards past the reptiles. The humid scent of their enclosures leaking out into the hall. They both laughed as they dashed down the hall. At Avians, Dipa took the lead as she slammed a muscled shoulder across Deo – causing him to spin and fall behind.
“You’re just slow!”
They dashed together past the remaining hangars. Deo in front, then Dipa – neck, and neck. Arms tangling with each other as they raced and then –
The two slammed into the bulkhead of the crew quarters. Laughter echoing against the metal even as tingly pain shot up their bodies from the impact. They leaned against the doors, the cool metal a welcome relief to their sweating bodies.
“You cheated.” Deo accused.
“We said body contact was legal, I just used all the resources I had available to me.”
“There’s a distinct difference between a light push and body slamming someone D.”
“You’re just upset because it’s 13-4 right now.”
“I’d like to contest that – wait, do you hear that?”
“Hear what you kook? You being a sore loser -“
Deo shushed at her again waving his hand at the suspected source of his noise. Her eyes rolled at him but she reluctantly listened to the swaying of the ship. Water movement could be faintly heard from one of the enclosure hangars. A few pings of rocks against the outside of the Kota. Something that had become nothing more than background noise for her. Their own breathing clouded the air.
“I don’t hear anyth-“
Her face fell, mouth falling agape as the faint noise became clear to her. Dipa turned to Deo, who looked halfway between terror and mania. They were frozen. The two stood against the door, heavy breathing all but stopped as they listened.
“The comms system… it’s -“
Brriii – They had already begun the spring back not even halfway through the ringing – iiiiiiiiing.
The two were tripping over themselves in their mad dash to the bridge. To Dipa it seemed as if the the bridge grew further and further away with every hurried step, despite her pounding footsteps. Each one driving pain up her legs as she slammed her feet into the metal floor. Just as before, Deo fell behind his heavy panting fading out behind her as Dipa made the stretch to the bridge door.
Calloused hands fumbled with the door lock, as she slid heavily into the door, pushing it open with all her might. Dipa fell into the room, by all means, scrambling up off the floor and to the main seat like a person gone mad.
“This is Dipa Sharma of GSLV-Kota, who am I being hailed by?” her voice was alight with a smile.
“Hail in on call ship, this is Sharma of the GSLV-Kota please come in.”
Deo finally slid into the room, eyes alight as they entered. He dashed up to his seat and pulled his headset on yet stayed silent – waiting in anticipating for the response.
“Roger Kota this is Isidore Dubois of the FS-Cœur am I correct in assuming you are of the Indian National Fleet?”
Dipa shared a confused look with Deo before responding, “You are correct. I apologize, Dubois, I assumed you were from our head fleet… May I ask the reasoning for your hail?”
“What is the nature of your cargo Kota.”
“The nature of your cargo – Kota, you are a cargo ship are you not?”
Deo slapped her arm, garnering her attention. His mic had been pulled away and silently he made a negative gesture towards her. Dipa nodded slowly, reaching to respond to the Cœur again.
“That’s the business of the India Fleet, Dubois, I’m afraid I can’t tell you that.”
“What about your flight route? Are you in fact, en route to the Indian Europa Facilities?”
Once again Deo was making gestures at her. Dipa held her hand up as a palm, a silent request for him to stop.
“Our route is yet to be determined until we establish contact with our head fleet. What is the business for your hail Dubois?”
“What is your cargo, Kota. Food? Supplies? Tell me, Kota. It’s for your own safety.”
“Dubois that information is the business of the India National Fleet I cannot give you that information please state the reason behind your hail or I will cease the communication.”
“If you cease the communication I will be forced to use our weaponry to destroy your ship, Kota. Tell me your cargo and route pattern.”
Dipa felt her skin grow cold. She could hear Deo quietly cursing, his headset was thrown back onto the control panels.
“I’m waiting for your response, Kota. I have your vessel in the line of our weaponry.”
“You’d be willing to kill us – all of us. Just because of what??”
“We need supply. If you have it we need it. If you’ve got secured landing at Europa we want that.”
“You can’t just have Europa – it’s a whole facility dedicated hundreds of people and -“
“Your people don’t get priority over mine. We need sanctuary and we will have it. Route and cargo, Kota.”
Dipa sputtered. She looked over to Deo, who had taken to pacing around the room his hands running through his hair nervously. She mouthed the words ‘What do I say to him’, only to get a violent shrug of his shoulders as he turned away from her.
She took a shaking breath, steeling herself to respond the best she can, “Our cargo is … our cargo is flora and fauna of India – and we’re transporting them to Europa for preservation.”
Deo returned beside her at the consoles. Arms held across his chest in a hopeless effort to hold himself together.
“You’re kidding me. You’re fucking KIDDING ME.”
“Pardon me, Dubois?”
“I overboard as many people on this ship as I could! AND YOU PEOPLE FILL YOURS UP WITH PETS.”
“We’re preserving the ecology of -“
“HOW MANY PEOPLE DID YOU LEAVE BEHIND”, Dipa grimaced, “And how many people are you going to leave behind when you get to Europa so you can put food bowls down for the dogs?”
“You don’t understand – this was an important … an important – “
“An important waste of resources. Prepare to be boarded, Kota. We’re taking anything you have that’s useful. For you know. The actual humans.”
The hail ended, Dipa and Deo were left frozen on the bridge. A light flashed on the Kota’s dashboard, an external request for boarding, no doubt from the Cœur. A series of numbers scrolled across the screen as the Kota looked up the ship on its database. Dipa pulled her hair tie from her braid, ripping each woven strand apart in frustration. Her dark strands thrown about wildly in the process, hands running through and tangling it. She might have ripped hair out if Deo hadn’t reached over and stayed her hands.
“We’re going to be okay D, we’re going to be okay.”
“What do you mean okay?? We’re being raided by the French!??”
“No, we are not.”
Deo danced his hands across the console screens again. None of the fumbling nervousness he had days before. He skipped past the Cœur’s request, instead pulling up the data the Kota’s computer had recorded.
“What are you looking for?”
“This”, with a definite tap Deo presented her with a single file he had found.
The FS-Cœur serial MS-00A25. A mining vessel associated with an independent asteroid mining corporation from Liévin.
“And what about this?”
“It’s a mining ship.”
“Mining ships are slow.”
She stared for a moment, “Are you just suggesting we -“
“Haul ass? Yes.”
“What about their weapons??”
“Weapons my ass. All they have is asteroid tethers – they’ve got nothing but glorified harpoons, if we jet through the heavy debris fields we could lose them.”
“Great!! Space harpoons! Those things could destroy us!”
“We have to try. What happened to preserving our culture D?”
“I – what if he’s right though. You were saying the same thing what if we’re the problem.”
“I don’t know… but we can’t change that. So let’s try and not waste what we’ve done.”
His eyes, while wrapped with dark circles, were intense – glaring at her with ferocity. Dipa regarded him for only a few seconds, but that was all it took for her to regain her resolve – nodding at him. Deo returned to his co-seat, slamming his hand on the reject button for the Cœur’s request.
Together the two stole back the ship from auto-pilot, slamming the engines into overdrive. Rattling panels of the metal threatening to fall apart. They met eyes just once, deep brown eyes met each other, and then Dipa threw the ship forward into space. Almost immediately afterward alarms blared as narrowly past their view on the bridge a metal spike jetted by them. A horrendous screech of metal grinding against her ears. It was there and gone again, jerked out of view by the Cœur, dragged back to be reset for a second launch.
They plunged the Kota deeper into the debris fields they had so carefully navigated out of. Steering around rocks as much as they steered around large scraps of bridges and cityscapes. Glass shards spinning in the empty void, only shattered further by the impact they had with the Kota.
Another devastating cry of metal called out to the two, throwing off their course. Deo snarled out a curse before redirecting the Kota on track behind a large tumbling hunk of Earth. Plunging forward, Dipa watched the radar as the large blip that was the Cœur drew closer or the occasional smaller ones of tethers launched at them.
As they were diving under a piece of Earth, dotted by a large, halved bridge, a halting scream of torn metal flung her and Deo into the consoles in front of them. Dipa felt her ribcage creak in protest at the poor treatment. She had no time to comment on it, though, as the red emergency lights flared on.
“Oh fuck… oh fuck”, she whispered, trying to stand on the now lilting ship.
Deo was hanging onto the consoles in desperation as he tapped his way through the damage reports.
“We’re caught, aft end, port side. They -“, he was cut off as the ship lurched again. Dipa was knocked onto her back and Deo backward against the co-seat, “They’re dragging us in.”
“We’re so fucked. So fucking fucked. FUCK.”
“No, not yet not yet – if we – if we, we. Fuck, I don’t know.”
Another lurch sent them flat on their backs and the Kota turned nearly completely stern up. A cacophony of noise followed, enclosures falling and slamming into each other; glass shattering and cries and caws of their living cargo screaming. Deo was flung from the co-seat, Dipa attempted to reach for him and break his fall against the hard metal. She only managed to succeed in hurting herself more as his body slammed into hers, and both of them into the steel.
Dipa dug her hand into Deo’s, pulling him close to the Kota slowly turned upside down. They slid against the wall slowly finding their way onto the ceiling. The lights flickered out, leaving only a console alert she could barely read upside down: ‘Emergency Power’. With an ungraceful flop, the two were upturned fully onto the roof. They slid into the central well that had been the bridge’s vaulted ceiling.
“Oxygen loss at over 30%, maintenance personnel report to damage sites immediately. Priority 4 emergency in progress.”
The computers tinny voice alerting them to an issue that Dipa knew couldn’t be solved. Not when the staff had been reduced to two so they could transport the animals. A useless effort now as the ship was now turned completely upside down.
“I’m sorry Dipa…”
She looked at him, “What for?”
“We should have just let them on board.”
“No… Deo, Deo look at me”, she used her free hand to turn his face to her, “No. No. We tried to do something good. To save life. I’d do it a thousand times over.”
They could see the Cœur in full now. Upside down it seemed like a hulking nightmare. Chunks of mined rock still attached to its side; as if it didn’t have time to unload when it last returned on-planet. Rusty, old, and if Dubois wasn’t lying – full of human life.
“Just tell me one thing Dipa… tell me that they aren’t wrong.”
“Tell me that Dubois and his crew isn’t wrong for doing this… he has people on his ship, we have -“
“Shut up Deo. We did something. Take solace in that. We saved life. He’s going to ta-“
Her voice cut off. No more tears could be had but her her throat still closed in on itself, a dry sob. Deo pulled her closer, and in response, she squeezed his hand tighter. Their heads dipped together, foreheads kissing in final moments of friendship.
“Us too I suppose”, she whispered quietly.
“Us too. I don’t want to look.”
She met his eyes, “Then look at me instead.”
She didn’t turn to watch the Cœur fire their mining hook again. She let her loose hair shield her and Deo from what was happening. Hands and eyes locked together, the two saw nothing but each other when the hook pierced through the bridge screen.
Glass and screeching air sucking everything out into the void. Two people ripped out into the dark.
1 Week Later
“Come in incoming ship, this is Vikas Anand of the Europa Launch Facility 5, identify yourself and your clearance level.”
“Incoming ship please identify yourself. Do not force us to use protective measures.”
“Apologies Europa 5. This is Isidore Dubois of the FS-Cœur. I’ve got a ship of people here, I’m requesting sanctuary. Can you help us?”
“I’ll see what can be done. Please, stand-by Dubois.”
“Thank you, Europa 5. Keep my people updated.”
[Read the Next November installment: Old News Pt.1]